Naturalist’s Notebook: Northern Pygmy-Owl Brings Out the Birds

By John Schmitt
From the Autumn 2014 issue of Living Bird magazine.

4 May 2014
Greenhorn Mountains
Kern County, California

It’s always a good day’s bird watching when I can coax a Northern Pygmy-Owl into view, which I succeeded in doing early this morning. The tiny owls are usually escorted by a scolding mob of small birds of many species, but today, in addition to the usual chickadees, juncos, kinglets, and nuthatches, the ranks of this bellicose mob were swollen with a lot of colorful spring migrants.

Were it not for the presence of the singing pygmy-owl, the vast majority of these migrants would probably have stayed in the forest canopy and gone undetected by me. But this morning dozens of small birds filtered down from the canopy to dart and flit in the pine foliage near the owl in the warm morning light, united in one purpose: to call attention to an assassin in the forest. The vehemently scolding birds included Hermit, Townsend’s, Wilson’s, Orange-crowned, and Yellow-rumped warblers; a few Lesser Goldfinches and Purple Finches and a surprise Lawrence’s Goldfinch; plus one each of Cassin’s Vireo, Western WoodPewee, and a dazzling prime-plumaged Lazuli Bunting! This was the largest and most diverse flock of birds I have ever observed assembled to mob a pygmy-owl.

The tiny owl sang through it all, appearing completely unruffled, paying little heed to the braver birds that darted a bit closer than usual. It was only a menacing rush by the Western Wood-Pewee that caused anything like a flinch by the owl.

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